Seanad debates

Friday, 27 March 2020

An Bille um Bearta Éigeandála ar mhaithe le Leas an Phobail (Covid-19) 2020: An Dara Céim - Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (Covid-19) Bill 2020: Second Stage


12:00 pm

Photo of Alice-Mary HigginsAlice-Mary Higgins (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister to the House. As I stated when we met last week, I am conscious that, as Minster for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Minister is also playing a key role in the global response to this. If at an appropriate point in the debate there is an opportunity to speak to that, I would appreciate it because this is a global pandemic and we must be in international solidarity now. Particularly, I am concerned for those in developing countries who Ireland has supported. At a time when universal healthcare has been a demand from the global south for many years, this is surely a moment. I note the proposals, for example, in relation to debt forgiveness for countries in the global south that might allow them to build their services and health and social services at a time of extraordinary global threat. Those are proposals Ireland should support.

I note the Minister has spoken about the fact that this is a collective challenge. We all agree that this is a collective challenge. He has asked us to trust, and we have.We have seen collective trust being placed in the Government, Ministers and our public services. However, part of that trust must be a mutual trust that the Government: trusts members of the Opposition and other parties, all of whom share the common goal of the public good and public health at this time; really engages and listens to the proposals put forward; and trusts that all those elected here who are bringing forward ideas are doing so in good faith and with good intentions, not for their personal or political success but for the good of the country - that we are each other's collective watchdogs and agents in trying to do this work. That is really important. Trust is one of the most powerful currencies we have at this time along with that common consideration that flows from it. Regarding that trust, I would also urge the Government, which has been very good in giving clear information in the early stages of this process and taking some very robust and responsible actions, to ensure that this same clear and forthright communication continues and is increased. I know that many of us have written to Ministers seeking answers on issues. I know they are overwhelmed but it is important that we can get those answers to pass on to others to keep social trust in place.

Regarding PPE, we saw a real concern where there was a question of people being able to identify the problem and the lack of essential protection for those who protect us and those in our hospitals. We must make sure we never seek to silence or obscure those voices but listen to them and that this listening is very palpable and heard. Now we see that there is a response and I am very glad to hear that the shipments for our hospitals and health services are coming in from Sunday. In terms of the community and voluntary sector where many are engaging and working with extraordinarily vulnerable people, the priority must be those who are working in situations where Covid-19 is known to be present but we must take into account asymptomatic transfer between extremely vulnerable people if we do not have face masks for those doing vital social and community care. It is something we need to address soon. Perhaps the Tánaiste could comment with regard to that issue.

In terms of trust, there are certain areas that have shown that they cannot be simply trusted but must be regulated. We have seen those sectors such as horse and greyhound racing and the betting industry, which had to be told to shut down. I urge the Tánaiste to take action in respect of shutting construction sites. In respect of the planning elements in the Bill such as where we need planning exemptions and exemptions in terms of building work that will be necessary as part of our collective national response to this crisis in terms of building health facilities and adapting premises, I ask him to address how we can ensure those will proceed in this planning hiatus and how we produce a climate where we permit what is necessary rather than assuming that all good practice is happening on building sites because everybody, including SIPTU, is telling us that it is not.

I am concerned with regard to employers and will table amendments relating to the language of "good intention". I would much prefer if we were clear, and I think it has been called for from the other side, around clarity on inability to pay, for example. What is the rationale for keeping or not keeping staff on? We need clarity of language. I am concerned that some of the language is a bit ambiguous in that regard and I urge the Tánaiste to clarify and tighten that up. It will be important.

Many Senators have spoken about Dr. Michael Ryan. We are all extraordinarily proud of the work that he has done in the WHO. We have heard many people quoting the fact that he said that speed sometimes trumps perfection. However, the other thing he has told us is that, and he said it in the past two days, human rights, privacy rights and human dignity are also important considerations. He said these must also be factored in and that we cannot put them aside in pursuit of public health because part of public health depends on respect for that rights-based approach to health. That was something echoed by a number of UN rapporteurs in a letter they published yesterday where they spoke about ensuring that the public health response supports all of the public, including the most vulnerable - those with disabilities, the homeless, migrants and refugees.That is part of our public health response. It is not something we add in later. It is how we do it. In that regard, there have been requests to move the vulnerable out of direct provision centres. We cannot simply allow for persons to be moved out to intensive care units or to hospitals because we did not take the opportunity to put protection in place and to ensure safety. We also need to look at moving the vulnerable, in terms of those who are homeless in Ireland. We need to ensure they have a safe place to be during this crisis. We will all work together.

I appreciate the very good points made by Senator Bacik on how we may constitute the next Seanad. If 11 Senators are necessary, let them be 11 who can serve this national interest and not simply the interests of parties. They could possibly be selected from parties but with that national collective interest in mind. If not, then could we ensure that in the next stage of legislation in the months ahead, we build in three Stages so that we have the power and opportunity to amend or improve legislation in this House for that collective good? Many of us will make points today but I do not believe we will be pressing amendments. I hope the Tánaiste will be able to answer us and that he can recognise that collective project we are in and that we are all mandated parts of that.


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